Boxing Day, oh joy.
I saw a statistic after this match that Newcastle’s smashing total of forty seven defeats on the feast of Steohen is an English record, course it is.
Newcastle United had made a thoroughly good fist of ruining Christmas with the painful late mess up at Chelsea and the sun-standard performance at Luton, so why stop today, as people arrived, bloated and hungover for an early kick off that I for one was slightly lacking in confidence about.
Annoyingly, the matchday squad today was as strong as it’s looked in a long time, with Joelinton returning to the bench and Schar back in the starting XI, although this may have been a necessity as Lascelles was absent after limping off at Kenilworth Road. Fab did not look 100% but to single anyone out for this would be harsh.
Today was , I’m not going to deep dive on the game too much, as you really don’t want to relive it. What I would say is this was dreadful in the same way as Milan was, as opposed to Luton, which was shameful for 90 minutes. Like our Champions League exit, this was decent first half followed by a disjointed, tired-looking and clueless second period, punctuated by what is becoming a major flaw, which I’ll get to in a bit.
United’s current gameplay seems to involve the incisive approach play that has been a hallmark of the Howe era, followed by seemingly running out of ideas in the final quarter of the pitch and passing it about until either someone is dispossessed or straight up gives it away with a horror pass. We did manage to break through first in this game, but it took a penalty, as Miley’s through ball had Isak away on goal until he had his heels clipped. The length of the VAR check suggested we might get it took off us, but the foul stood an Isak coolly converted. That felt like the basis to see off a bottom six side.
The game turned in first half injury time as Newcastle should have taken an unassailable lead. Almiron was having an unspectacular afternoon as Forest had obviously sussed to keep him on his right foot. However, he did brilliantly to dispossess a defender in the box and lead a charge for what looked like a certain second. This was one of those situations where there were two choices: unleash a shot for a good chance of a goal, or square it to the waiting Isak for a certain thing. Miggy managed to take hidden option three, and picked out the solitary Forest defender. This was infuriating enough, but Forest quickly broke and equalised, Elanga gliding past Burn on the right before finding former Mag Chris Wood, whose goal meant he’d scored as many at SJP for Forest as he did in black and white.
This statistic did not last long as Wood took eight minutes of the second half to double his tally and a further seven minutes to treble it, his first hat-trick in the PL and only one less than his entire NUFC league total (home and away) in 15 minutes of game time.
This was entirely down to that flaw I mentioned earlier. United have developed a tendency to look ponderous and blunt in attack, which has now been complemented by a degree of wayward passing that sees the collapse of any promising foray forward seem inevitable. When this happens, the vulnerability on the counter attack is terrifying. Both Milan goals came in this way and there have been examples in just about every performance of the recent barren run, with last ditch defending or poor finishing the occasional salvation.
Ultimately, there are factors that stand out in this.
The defence are knackered, with Schar and Burn clearly not 100%. Same for those who are wasting the attacks, both Gordon and Almiron burnt out. Bruno looks less so but the amount of games he has played surely are catching up. In addition, the introduction of Dubravka has changed the shape of the team, as his limpet-like approach to sticking on his line is a sharp contrast to Pope’s effective keeper sweeper. Pope playing the match from the edge of the box drives the defence further up the field and allows the likes of Schar licence to venture forward knowing he is out quick for any counter. Of all the injuries this is the one we didn’t appreciate enough. Any criticism of Pope’s kicking seems ridiculous given that in the five games he’s been out we have conceded only three less than the 14 he played in. I was quite happy to have Dubravka in nets for the remainder of the season, but it feels like January needs to see movement in this area, and short-term I’d be quite happy to see Karius jogging out at the Stadium of Light next weekend.
Anyway, Wood took advantage of matters twice, skinning Burn before finishing smartly across goal, then breaking out a physics defying run from practically halfway, which Dubravka stood off for too long until the inevitable concession. It felt borderline that VAR might get us out of this one but Wood had his astonishing hat-trick. He celebrated none of the goals, so fair play to him there.
A total contrast, as last Boxing Day saw Chris Wood’s final goal for Newcastle in a 3-0 win at Leicester (a third minute penalty at the King Power) that saw us second in the table and within touch of the top of the league.
Today’s defeat saw us drop to 8th, with a further fall pending on the Brighton result. With difficult fixtures ahead, mid-table looks to be a likely home for a few weeks and few would have seen that coming.
There is of course mitigation given the horrific injury list but here’s where Eddie can step up.
For me, his biggest error came at Spurs, when he persisted with the XI that were dead on their feet at Goodison, before flogging those same players again in the crucial Milan defeat. To allow the likes of Dummett, Ritchie and Hall starts in a couple of these matches could not have worsened our league position, but may have relieved the squad enough that we remained in some form of cup. I have said it before, but the near certainty of a nil return at Anfield offers an opportunity to rest those weary souls, with Schar, Burn, Gordon and Bruno among those needing protection from exhaustion, injury and even suspension, as we’ve had previous of badly timed red cards against Liverpool.
Unfortunately, the season for me now hinges on the game with the mackems. It must be prioritised in the weeks ahead as any recovery in the table won’t be kick started away to Liverpool.
On a more optimistic note, I firmly believe that league form will turn after the winter break, as rest and recovery should see an almost full squad capable of reaching their potential in the spring months. Unfortunately, the recent barrage has left the top four looking miles away, so a Europa League charge is both likely and feasible. However, this could be heavily reinforced by an FA Cup run, which can only begin if we can galvanise to overcome a very apparent obstacle. I will struggle to celebrate a sixth place finish and fear what kind of impact a Europa campaign would have on this squad, with any FFP conscious reinforcement unlikely to make a huge difference. The cup would bring a different perspective altogether.
Given our luck with draws, it feels a long, long way off to be looking at Wembley and suchlike. The priority needs to be avoiding a horrendous derby defeat that would bring about enormous glee for an enemy that would effectively end our season as a competition. If you’re not bricking it for this one you haven’t been paying attention. Sunderland ended their own recent poor run with a win at Hull and on current form they’re probably favourites, especially if Bellingham eyes up our response to counter attacks.
The positive has to come from a quote from Eddie Howe that seemed alarmingly Bruce-like, saying “we need to train properly for the first time in months.” This sounds terrible, but I take this as the fact that the constant games have led to a cycle of recovery after the last game that goes straight into a team run for the next game, following a schedule of ten games in 30 days that has derailed a promising season altogether.
The relative calm of two games in eleven days should allow for better recovery and preparation, with the prospect of the recently injured not only returning, but actually being fit. If things are structured so events at Anfield don’t derail matters, I would have confidence in a Newcastle side playing at even three quarters of their capability having too much for our Championship neighbours and giving the season a much needed jump start.
For today though, a first home league defeat in the Howe era to anyone other than a top six side is a humbling occurrence. Let’s hope this is rock bottom.
Stats via BBC Sport:
Newcastle 1 Nottingham Forest 3 – Tuesday 26 December 12.30pm
Isak 23 pen
Wood 45+1, 53, 60
Possession was Forest 38% Newcastle 62%
Total shots were Forest 15 Newcastle 19
Shots on target were Forest 6 Newcastle 7
Corners were Forest 2 Newcastle 10
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
Attendance: 52,207 (3,000 Forest)
Newcastle team v Forest:
Dubravka, Trippier, Schar, Botman (Hall 79), Burn (Livramento 55), Miley, Guimaraes, Longstaff (Joelinton 71), Almiron (Wilson 55), Isak, Gordon
Karius, Dummett, Ritchie, Krafth, Alex Murphy
You can follow the author on Twitter @Mr_Dolf
(Newcastle 1 Nottingham Forest 3 – Match ratings and comments on all of the Newcastle United players – Read HERE)
(Be upset as Newcastle United fans that NUFC lost but try and keep the toys in your pram – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Nottingham Forest 3 – Instant Newcastle United fan / writer reaction – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Nottingham Forest 3 – Things went from bad to worse – Read HERE)
Newcastle United confirmed matches to end of February 2024:
Monday 1 January 2024 – Liverpool v Newcastle (8pm) Sky Sports
Saturday 6 January 2024 – Sunderland v Newcastle (12.45pm) ITV
Saturday 13 January 2024 – Newcastle v Man City (5.30pm) TNT Sports
Tuesday 30 January 2024 – Aston Villa v Newcastle (8.15pm) TNT Sports
Saturday 3 February 2024 – Newcastle v Luton (3pm)
Saturday 10 February 2024 – Forest v Newcastle (5.30pm) Sky Sports
Saturday 17 February 2024 – Newcastle v Bournemouth (3pm)
Saturday 24 February 2024 – Arsenal v Newcastle (8pm) TNT Sports